Unmatched and the remediation of the digital fighting game genre

 

Unmatched layout

As I’m sure you know, Board Meeting (Serious Play’s show dedicated to analog board and card gaming) is currently on hiatus due to the ongoing pandemic. However, in addition to completing my coursework and preparing for my preliminary exams, I have spent this time checking out a handful of games – including Burgle Bros. and Horrified – that I hope to play on the show whenever it returns. (We are having some behind-the-scenes discussions about that, so stay tuned) Of those games, my favorite is by far Unmatched, a tactical miniatures dueling game that in many ways remixes and remediates the digital fighting game experience into an analog context. Have you ever wanted to pit King Arthur against Medusa? Perhaps you’ve wondered who would win in a fight between Robin Hood and Bigfoot? Maybe you’re just curious if Bruce Lee could defeat the raptors from Jurassic Park. Unmatched answers all these questions and more as it allows players to mix and match fighters of all kinds, from the page to the screen to mythology and folklore.

Unmatched characters

Unmatched features an eclectic mix of public domain and licensed characters. Photo by author.

A collaboration between Restoration Games and Mondo Games, Unmatched is a reboot of the Star Wars: Epic Duels game that was originally released in 2002 and preceded Hasbro’s similar Heroscape system. Doing away with the Star Wars license (currently owned by the restrictive and highly litigious Walt Disney Company, which no doubt wants to keep licensing rights in-house), Restoration and Mondo instead opted to revamp the game using numerous public domain characters. These include King Arthur, Sinbad, Medusa, and Alice in Wonderland (all featured in the core “Battle of Legends, Vol. 1” set), as well as Robin Hood and Bigfoot (released in a separate set). In addition, the game system features licensed figures like Bruce Lee, the raptors and Robert Muldoon from Jurassic Park, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (who will debut in a set scheduled for release later this year). The creators have also promised additional sets like the recently announced “Cobbles & Fog” (which features Dracula, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, and Sherlock Holmes) and “Battle of Legends, Vol. 2” (no word yet on the combatants included in that set), as well as another two-pack along the lines of the “Robin Hood vs. Big Foot” and “Raptors vs. Ingen” sets released in 2019. Some of these sets even come with their own board, allowing players to do battle in locales like Sarpedon, Sherwood Forest, the Yukon, or the Raptor Paddock on Isla Nublar.

 

Unmatched cards

Each character in Unmatched comes with their own deck of cards, all gorgeously illustrated by artist Oliver Barrett. Photo by author.

Unmatched features simple rules and streamlined game play, making for quick but fun battles. Best of all, all the sets are compatible with one another, allowing players to get creative with their match-ups (for instance, pitting Muldoon against Bruce Lee in a Most Dangerous Game situation). However, players soon learn that each character comes with their own unique deck of cards and therefore requires a specific strategy to achieve victory. This is where the game’s complexity arises. Players choose a primary hero, many (but not all) of whom fight alongside one or more sidekicks (Medusa commands an army of three harpies while Bigfoot attacks with the help of his loyal Jackalope). Each hero has a character card outlining their movement and special abilities, a deck of 30 action cards, and a dial that keeps track of their hit points. Players then get two actions in which they take turns maneuvering their fighters around the battlefield, playing schemes, and/or attacking their opponent’s fighters. Play ends when one player’s core hero loses all their hit points. It sounds simple, but players really need to know their heroes and fighters so they can choose the best strategy and come out on top.

Unmatched boards

The game features several double-sided boards allowing players to wage combat in a variety of themed environments. Photo by author.

After playing several different combinations of fighters (including Bigfoot trouncing King Arthur…all hail Bigfoot, King of the Britons!) across numerous rounds of this game, I can safely say that I love it. The simple system makes it easy to pick up, and play sessions move quickly while providing a lot of fun (all depending on the severity of the smack talk, of course). Interestingly, as mentioned, the game feels like an analog version of a digital fighting game along the lines of Super Smash Bros. or Marvel vs. Capcom; one could easily imagine loading up a character select screen and choosing between Sinbad or Alice in Wonderland before picking a stage on which to fight. While Unmatched probably aligns more with a real-time strategy game due its turn-based combat system, the battles nevertheless move quickly and the ability to switch between different fighters (a player could attack with King Arthur on one turn but then deploy sidekick Merlin on the next) makes the game feel like a fighting game as well. The artwork on the cards helps solidify this feeling, as each one features gorgeous illustrations by Oliver Barrett depicting the characters in motion or unleashing special attacks like Bigfoot’s “Savagery,” Sinbad’s “Leap Away,” and the Jabberwock’s “Jaws that Bite.” When combined with the highly detailed miniatures (perfect for painting), which look they should be bobbing in place while waiting for a disembodied voice to shout “FIGHT,” Unmatched expertly recreates the fighting game experience in an analog context. I absolutely cannot wait to play this one on Board Meeting.

Christopher Olson

Christopher J. Olson received his MA in Media and Cinema Studies from DePaul University in Chicago, IL in 2014. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Media, Cinema, and Digital Studies at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. He is author, co-author, or co-editor of the books THE GREATEST CULT TELEVISION SHOWS OF ALL TIME (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), CONVERGENT WRESTLING: PARTICIPATORY CULTURE, TRANSMEDIA STORYTELLING, AND INTERTEXTUALITY IN THE SQUARED CIRCLE (Routledge, 2019), 100 GREATEST CULT FILMS (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), HEROES, HEROINES, AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN: CHALLENGING GENDER AND SEXUALITY STEREOTYPES IN CHILDREN'S ENTERTAINMENT MEDIA (Lexington, 2017), POSSESSED WOMEN, HAUNTED STATES: CULTURAL TENSIONS IN EXORCISM CINEMA (Lexington, 2016), and MAKING SENSE OF CINEMA: EMPIRICAL STUDIES INTO FILM SPECTATORS AND SPECTATORSHIP (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). Since 2014, Christopher has served as co-host of THE POP CULTURE LENS podcast, which he co-created with his partner, Dr. CarrieLynn Reinhard of Dominican University.

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